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Rules For Writing (Sort Of)...


Well, the so-called Big Storm is past—they recorded winds of 89 m.p.h. at the Coast Guard tower, and the power went out four times. We have maybe a day’s respite before the next one (I can see the wall of clouds offshore).

I had someone tell me this week, “Your songs don’t follow that verse-chorus-bridge pattern like you’re supposed to. But they’re good.” It was tempting to applaud them and say, “You got it!” It is not necessary to follow that pattern to write something that’s good. I think the pattern fixation on the part of Nashville “experts” is born partly from not really knowing what makes a good song (“We want something exactly like the last hit, only different”) and partly from gatekeeperness—it is another way to restrict entry to a circle that is intended to remain closed.

What makes a good song? Audiences like ‘em. That’s the only definition of “good” I consider important. There are a handful of rules I try to apply to songs I write. They are rules I made up myself, for myself; I do not know if they’d be applicable to anyone else.

There ought to be a HOOK—it’s the “filename,” to use ‘puter language, that people are going to remember the song by. There’s a TIME FRAME that accommodates people’s short attention spans (I like to keep my songs between 3-1/2 and 5 minutes). It’s a COMPLETE THOUGHT—no loose ends, or unanswered questions. It GETS YOUR ATTENTION IMMEDIATELY, and BUILDS from there. And it’s DIFFERENT: it’s either saying something new, or saying something old in a new way.

Note that pattern didn’t enter into that at all. I’m always experimenting with pattern: I have songs with no choruses (making it a challenge where to put the hook), or with bridges instead of choruses; I have songs where the chorus has the same music as the verses (another no-no), and plenty of songs without bridges—because I consider bridges generally unnecessary. And playing around with pattern helps ensure that every song sounds different—something else I’m insistent about.

I apply the same rules to lyrics I want to musicate. A lot of other folks’ stuff, of course, will be in the “proper” pattern, because they’ve been told it has to be, and I won’t be bothered by it, because it’s their song, not mine. The “proper” pattern is quite capable of producing a good song. (One of mine, “Rotten Candy,” deliberately followed every one of the Nashville Rules as I knew them, and it’s not a bad song. You should hear it sung by Polly Hager.) It’s just not the only way to do it.

The only additional thing I require of “musicatable” lyrics is they HAVE TO SING—I have to be able to hear a melody as I read the words. That doesn’t always happen, even with a well-written piece.

UPDATES: The Songbook “Acrobatted” pretty good (and compressed to 10% of its original size in the process—it ended up only 1.6MB), but there is one problem—Acrobat for some reason doesn’t preserve any underlinings from PageMaker, and when I’m doing lyric sheets, I always underline where the chord changes are. I will have to flag them a different way (italicization, probably)—but it will entail going through all 65 songs and making dozens of little corrections in each one. Otherwise, it’s going to be a good product.

My wife found (while cleaning) a printout of the old “Joe is Great!” brochure I’d designed back in 2005—it was one of the files that got deleted when “Alice” the ‘puter got her Windows XP operating system in 2007. The information is a bit out of date, and I definitely have better concert photos now, but I like the way it starts out: “Dead dogs. (And cats. And birds. And other things.) Injured Santas. Born-again Barbies. The Bible like you never heard it before. Welcome to the songs of Joe Wrabek.” I’d like to include the “Joe is Great!” text in the Songbook, if I can figure out a way to incorporate it without changing all the page numbers.



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